Arkansas and Tennessee Lead Potential Surprise Teams of 2015

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April Fools’ Day is founded on the basic premise of surprising the unsuspecting, so it seems like a perfect opportunity to unveil teams built to surprise in the 2015 college football season.

Last season was the first with a slightly restructured postseason format, and newly designated top tier of bowl games — the “New Year’s Six” — were filled with surprise teams: Arizona, picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 South; Mississippi State, tabbed fourth in the SEC West; Georgia Tech, slated for fifth in the ACC Coastal; and TCU, the media’s preseason pick to finish seventh in the Big 12.

Though we may not see quite as many surprise teams crack the 2015 slate of New Year’s Six, there are some intriguing candidates capable of replicating the run last year’s crop of shockers went on.

Not all are deep sleepers. Arkansas and Tennessee, for example, are likely to generate considerable preseason buzz as they enter their respective head coach’s third season, coming off impressive finishes to 2014. However, few pontificators are going to tab either the Razorbacks or Vols as preseason favorites in their divisions of the SEC.

The surprises are not limited to the power conferences. While Boise State — the most prominent of all Group of Five programs — earned the Group of Five’s automatic bid into the New Year’s Six, the Broncos faced competition from unlikely challengers Colorado State and Memphis.

ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS

The only thing Bret Bielema’s done in his first two years in Fayetteville more effectively than dine on his own foot is restore Razorback football as an SEC West threat. Arkansas finished the season with a dominant win over Texas to finish above .500 for the first time since 2011, and with a break or two against Alabama and Texas A&M, could have landed in the final Top 25.

Arkansas’ offense mirrors that of Bielema’s outstanding Wisconsin teams, employing a multifaceted rushing attack with two capable backs sharing the workload.

Elsewhere, Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins might double their carries and be clear Heisman Trophy front-runners. At Arkansas, they take on half as much -work — but that doesn’t preclude either from breaking into the Heisman race. Bear in mind, Montee Ball ran for 33 touchdowns and became a Heisman finalist in 2011- with James White and dual-threat quarterback Russell Wilson still combining for over 1,000 yards.

As impressive as Arkansas was running the ball, it was arguably more impressive stopping the run on the other end. The Hogs must replace playmaker Tray Flowers, but returning tackle Taiwan Johnson is a good start toward replicating last year’s No. 12-ranked run defense.

OKLAHOMA STATE COWBOYS

“Quiet” is not often an adjective used to describe Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy, but his Cowboys are quietly the team to watch in the Big 12.

All the buzz in Big 12 Country heading into 2015 should center on 2014 co-champions Baylor and TCU, with Oklahoma generating its share of buzz in the wake of a wildly disappointing campaign. Meanwhile, Oklahoma State returns 16 starters, among them wide receiver Brandon Sheperd.

Sheperd is primed to break out as the next great Cowboys wide receiver in Gundy’s tenure, especially if quarterback Mason Rudolph ends Oklahoma State’s quarterback carousel of the last few years.

PITTSBURGH PANTHERS

I assume those of you familiar with the recent history of Pitt football are rolling your eyes and grumbling to yourselves, not this again. With each new season and every coaching change, it feels like each season will be the one the Panthers finally recapture past glory.

And each season almost always seems to end in Birmingham at the BBVA Compass Bowl. Look for Pat Narduzzi to be the coach who ends that (seriously!).

Narduzzi’s brand of stout defense powered Michigan State’s success the last half-decade, which included Big Ten, Rose and Cotton Bowl championships. That philosophy should play well in western Pennsylvania and give Pitt its own, distinct identity.

The Pitt offense has the perfect complement to a team building its identity on smash-mouth defense in power-back James Conner. Conner earned ACC Offensive Player of the Year in 2014, and returns in 2015 as one of the nation’s top preseason Heisman Trophy contenders.

TEMPLE OWLS

Temple endured 30 years without a bowl bid until the Al Golden-coached Owls of 2009. The program has appeared in just one since, but been eligible for the postseason three times — including last year in Matt Rhule’s second season as head coach.

Temple was passed over for a bowl bid in 2014, but there should be no such issue in 2015. On the contrary: the Owls could have their pick of bowl games and could even compete for the Group of Five’s automatic berth into one of the New Year’s Six contests.

Rhule returns one of the most veteran rosters in all of college football, bringing back 19 starters total. Ironically, the Owls play two of the other most veteran teams in the nonconference slate, Charlotte and UMass.

Quarterback P.J. Walker is among the Owl returners, looking to progress off a promising sophomore campaign in which he led Temple in rushing yards. If Walker can cut down on his miscues — he threw 15 interceptions in 2014 — he’ll be a dangerous dual-threat playmaker. And an offense to complement the defense is just what the Owls need to be legitimate American Athletic Conference championship contenders.

Temple had one of the nation’s stingiest scoring defense in 2014, allowing just over 17 points per game. Most of the starters from that unit return, chief among them tackling-machine linebacker Tyler Matakevich.

TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS

Butch Jones snapped Tennessee’s four-year streak of losing seasons in his second year in Knoxville by leading the Vols to their first bowl win since 2007.

The SEC East has been in a chaotic state since Jones’ arrival, and that should be no different in 2015. South Carolina is coming off a disappointing year that concluded with uncertainty about Steve Spurrier’s future; Jim McElwain inherits a Florida program left with a bare cupboard in the aftermath of Will Muschamp’s firing; Georgia must replace historically successful offensive coordinator Mike Bobo while also introducing a new quarterback.

The unpredictability that allowed newcomer Missouri to reach the SEC Championship Game in back-to-back seasons presents Tennessee with an opportunity to return to national relevance by claiming the divisional title.

Tennessee is not without its own uncertainties. Quarterback play is one of the biggest question marks ahead of the Vols, while the defense replaces its star linebacker.

What is clear is that Jones has a veteran lineup, and his run offense could be one of the more effective in the SEC. Breakout star Jalen Hurd is back, with Alabama transfer Alvin Kamara joining him. The duo puts some flexibility in the quarterback situation.

Assuming Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt return from missing the spring at full strength, the Vols will have one of the most imposing pass-rushes in the nation. The duo combined for 21 sacks a season ago, which was better than 24 FBS teams.